The blue-and-white buses of Lawrence Bus Co. will soon be replaced by crimson-and-blue models running out of the Kansas University campus, part of the university's plan to improve service, reduce exhaust emissions and boost potential for coordinated transit offerings with the city of Lawrence.
California-based MV Transportation, which already operates the Lawrence Transit Service, starts July 2 as the operator of KU on Wheels. The company landed the $1.8 million contract for the 2007-2008 academic year, and will be driving a fleet of 28 buses that the university is buying for another $1.456 million.
The KU system handles about 10,000 boardings each day.
"It's a service decision," said Danny Kaiser, assistant director of KU Parking and Transit. "It's a service that we wanted to be able to have control over, what the quality of the fleet was. We don't want to be relying on an outside provider - regardless of who that is - to give us buses we may not like. If we buy the buses, we're in control.
"These buses had to be ADA compliant, with functional lifts, and not belch black smoke. And the exhausts all have to be pointed up at the sky and not down at the street. Emissions were a big deal to students and almost anybody on campus."
KU chose MV Transportation over Lawrence Bus Co., which has been running the campus bus system for decades, using its own buses, and has been a Lawrence fixture since 1960.
With KU's decision to switch providers, Lawrence Bus Co. plans to close for good June 29 - idling its 27 buses, leaving 53 employees out of work and closing the book on 47 years of history.
Debbie Kelley, a Lawrence Bus Co. manager who has spent 24 years with the company, said KU officials likely would look back on the decision in a few years with regret.
"I feel sorry for them," said Kelley, who figures she may head to California to drive buses on movie sets. "We've always tried to keep the cost as low as we can and still provide a service that they don't have to worry about all the time. We tried to keep all the worry out of it, and we've done that for years.
"I wish them all the luck in the world. If that's what they've decided to do, that's what they've decided to do."
Kaiser said many of Lawrence Bus Co.'s employees likely would be hired by MV Transportation.
Kaiser said the decision to hire MV Transportation as the KU on Wheels operator came down to both cost and services. The system's routes will remain the same for next year with the exception of one addition: a fare-free bus serving lots near the Student Recreation Fitness Center and Memorial Stadium.
MV Transportation's bid to handle the $1.8 million in work also came with a number of extra service amenities, Kaiser said, such as technology that will enable riders to be notified of approaching buses.
"It's the wave of high-tech that's out there now," he said.
The new buses purchased by the university all are at least 12 years old, Kaiser said, but still will be more environmentally friendly than those used by Lawrence Bus Co.
And now that all the buses will be ADA compliant, he said, it would be logical to see that prospects for coordinating operations between KU on Wheels and the T would be improving.
"There have been barriers, and the buses have been the barrier - the big barrier," Kaiser said.
With the decision to buy its own buses and hire MV Transportation, KU has made its commitment to transit, Kaiser said. Now it's up to city officials to decide how they want to proceed with their system, and then work with KU about possible coordination.
"We're going to try to coordinate things, on a short-term basis, as best we can," Kaiser said. "We'll try to find opportunities for riders to move back and forth between the two systems. : If there are ways for us to stop duplicating our efforts, we need to start doing that.
"We need to find a way to make that happen."